View from Glen Hill: Avoiding a land development war

The area around 183 Ridgefield Road is truly beautiful, and neighbors, and indeed all of us, would not want to see that change. The Land Conservation Trust has also weighed in with its always important views to similar effect. That being said, the reality is that change at 183 will occur and is unlikely to take the form of only five “McMansions” on those 13.45 acres.

Our town has addressed this issue before when the development on the 10-acre site above River Road was first advanced. In columns then, I contrasted that River Road build with the earlier Avalon development on 10 acres above Route 7. Our town blocked the original modest development plans for that Route 7 site. So the owner sold to Avalon.

Avalon took advantage of state laws (Title 8, sec. 8-30g) that permit a developer who includes a long-term provision for a significant number of affordable-housing-unit set-asides to ignore all local zoning laws except those involving public health and safety, on which, even as to them, the burden of proof rests on the town. Wilton fought that development in the courts, but Avalon eventually won the right to proceed with a 100-unit rental property.

So, once town efforts to block the initial development propelled the parcel owner into Avalon’s hands, the litigation process put off for a decade higher school and other costs resulting from a rental complex of this magnitude (saving our town an estimated $1.5 million in the process), but it didn’t prevent the 100-unit Avalon development.  Wilton did not litigate the subsequent River Road development, perhaps as a result of its Avalon experience and the realization that the River Road developers, if stymied in their original plans, might then turn to a much larger Avalon-style approach.

So past experience has taught us that blocking one form of development can lead to something far more dense. As we struggle with town budgets, the consequences are worse not only for 183 Ridgefield Road’s neighbors but also for our town — that blocking can bring the type of development that significantly increases the number of school-aged residents, resulting in higher education costs, while also discouraging from remaining here those well-off, downsizing seniors who tend to place low demands on town resources.

Our town is presently in year two of a four-year moratorium on the application of state zoning rules for affordable-housing set-asides — thanks in significant part to our town’s farsighted development of affordable housing well before our state’s adoption of 8-30g.  However, that moratorium is unlikely to be extended because, at the expiration of the current moratorium, we will no longer be able (as a result of certain current set-asides expiring) to meet the volume of set-asides required to qualify for moratorium renewal.

For both the Avalon and River Road developments, there was a sewer line passing by the parcel. Here, by contrast, there is a question as to whether under the affordable housing rules or otherwise, a developer could force the extension of a town sewer line, at the developer’s own expense — if the town has available sewer capacity, as Wilton definitely does. But even if a developer can’t, there may still be ways, at least in theory, to do high-density development with an on-property treatment facility. That’s not an appealing route for this matter to take when the moratorium ends, yet the 183-Ridgefield Road developer has more than hinted recently at willingness to move in the affordable-housing direction.

Now contrast that with the ingenious approach taken on the recent Station Road development. Our town did a land swap of that site conveniently near the train station and town center for a small Westport Road site that would have been overwhelmed with development arguably achievable using the affordable housing set-aside rules. However, we don’t have another land-swap available.

One way forward is to “do an Avalon” and fight the developer all the way, but consider whether the wiser course isn’t to drop opposition to the sewer extension for 183 Ridgefield Road if the developer agrees to a covenant running with the land that bars a project larger than X number of units, with X some negotiated number less than 35.  Another negotiated condition might include significant delay in development. In any event, the maximum number of non-affordable-housing units that a developer can place on any parcel is an open question based on land contours and other factors that are only finally determined once the developer’s plans are filed.

In short, perhaps negotiation can yield a better result here than all-out war.